Literature = boring?

Many students think so. And Bruce Fleming says it is because we have professionalized the teaching of literature.pumpkin-sale

Nowadays we teach literature as if we were giving a tour of a grocery store to Martians who’ve just touched down on Earth. We professional storekeepers explain the vegetable section, the dairy section, the meat section, note similarities and differences among our wares, variations of texture and color, the fact that there’s no milk where the applesauce is, and perhaps the fact (which we bemoan) that there are no papayas. We’re teaching the store, not what’s in it. We don’t presuppose visitors know anything about where the things on display came from; if they do, it’s because we told them — that can be our work too, speaking of the world before it ended up in the grocery store. But we’re the ones who decide whether or not to include that world outside, and how much. We just want to rack up sales. All this fixation by the storekeepers on the store misses the point: People grow food in order to eat it. Similarly, books are meant to be read. Reading is the point of a book, not integrating it into a discipline.

Interesting. That simile doesn’t do it for you? How about this one?line-drawing-mt-fui

Literary study in the classroom nowadays offers views of the work of literature rather like the views of Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s celebrated spring series on “100 Views of Mt. Fuji.” In each view, the mountain, while present, is frequently tiny and in a corner, viewed (in the most famous print) beyond the crest of a wave whose foam seems to make fingers at the edges, or (in another) through a hoop that a barrel-maker is shaping.

Those are not the front-and-center shots on a postcard. They foreground the angle of the mountain, its treatment, much the way a literature professor does with a funky viewpoint that got him or her tenure. Of course the postcard shot has its own point, but in a real sense it’s more neutral than the angled treatment. It doesn’t push our noses in its approach: It defers to the object it is depicting. We’re far more conscious of the treatment of Mt. Fuji in an artsy Hokusai print than we are in a postcard shot. And that means, we’re all but compelled to see the mountain the way it’s presented, rather than being able to work on our own presentation.

The point of those two paragraphs, though, is the next sentence. “That’s why literary studies is intrinsically coercive.”


Teaching literature is coercive.

Here’s his discussion of that:

The power of the professor in the professionalized classroom — and the pressure on students to conform — is thus exponentially greater than it was before people started thinking that the point was the “View of Mt. Fuji” rather than Mt. Fuji viewed. If you want a good grade, you adopt that viewpoint. That’s what’s being taught, after all. Several generations of students have by now learned to give in to the power of the literary-studies professor — and hated every minute of it.

This is why I didn’t enjoy some of my graduate classes. You had to take the view of the teacher in order to write the paper and pass. That’s wrong. I like better the idea that the professor presents his view, through the red flag, perhaps, and I present mine, striated in a rainbow.

There is a point to college or university guidance of literature. Most people never read serious literature at all without a guide. Too, people get more sophisticated as they have things pointed out to them, or as they read more. And many people just don’t know what they may read to begin with. So there’s a reason for teaching. We professors just have to remember that the books are the point, not us. We need, in short, to get beyond literary studies. We’re not scientists, we’re coaches. We’re not transmitting information, at least not in the sense of teaching a discipline. But we do get to see our students react, question, develop, and grow. If you like life, that’s satisfaction enough.

old-bk-openThis ending paragraph offers hope to me. Yes, we want a guide to the reading. But what could the students be getting out of the reading? That is up to the students. He does guide them, in thinking of literature as it relates to their lives.

And that is what I am trying to do with Brit Lit I in May. We’ll see how well I carry it out.

But consider, Everyman is about a man told he is going to die. Where does he seek comfort? Where does he find comfort? Those are issues my students-to-be can relate to. How could we use that information while we are still living and not dying? That’s another question.

Metaphor for writing

I want to write better than I do: lean and lush, deep and real, sitting down with a bunch of frayed threads of clashing colors and see if I can weave them into something beyond myself.

via Bud the Teacher

It was originally in a comment on his blog and he liked it so much that he made it its own post.

I’m blatantly posting it here, because I am collecting real-life metaphors to use with my students. And just because I like it.

Bikinis and Deep Thinking: Two Great Things that have to do with college

Highlighting is like wearing a bikini

OK, by now I am sure you are wondering, what does this have to do with bikinis? When you highlight, you should only cover the essentials. A one piece suit covers things that don’t neccessarily matter. A cover-up covers even more, a lot of which is not needed. A big beach towel can be wrapped around and covers everything.

That’s the middle of the three paragraphs. Good for students and it catches their attention. I think I’ll use it.

Thanks for the simile.

How to Become a Deep Thinker at College

It requires three steps:

1. Choose a mixture of courses that all seem interesting to you. No more than half of these courses should be in a subject that you already know something about. (This will keep things novel.)

2. Calculate the number of hours per week you will need to handle the workload for these courses.

3. Double this total. Keep this number of hours free in your schedule. This probably means you won’t have many activities going on. This also means the course load you choose in (1) must be reasonable.

This advice is so simplistic as to border on facetious. But it’s the truth. The students who make great mental leaps, and really become more sophisticated thinkers, are those who have more than enough time to think about, work on, grapple with, and revel in their coursework.

Again from the middle. The set up is a student from Princeton asking advice. Good stuff.